Skip to main content

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles - David Hone ***

For most of us, dinosaurs have a strangely Victorian feel, with the associations of large, scary skeletons in nineteenth century buildings like the Natural History Museum. However, not only has knowledge of this remarkable group of animals moved on hugely since those skeletons were first put on show, the amount we have learned in the last 20 years eclipses everything that has come before, so it is valuable to have a really up-to-date view of dinosaurs, and in particular that most popular of groupings, the tyrannosaurs.

It's appropriate that I mention a Victorian feel, as David Hone's writing does have something of a fussy academic style. Unlike some academics who write popular science, he retains a precision and requirement to note uncertainty in some detail that doesn't make for the best reading, even if it is strictly the most accurate way to present what is, and isn't known. (I assumed he was about 70 from his style, but from the photo he's a lot younger.) However, this isn't disastrous and there is no doubt that what he gives us is a thorough grounding in dinosaurs in general, how the various tyrannosaurs (it's not just T. rex, by any means) fit into the bigger picture and a lot of the detail we know about them.

What's refreshing about this book is the clear presentation of just how difficult it is to make definitive statements based on a few, often fragmentary remains of animals that lived many millions of years ago. Even an apparently obvious distinction like whether an animal is male or female, or whether it is a small species or the juvenile of a different large species, is anything but straightforward. This approach is a wonderful counter to the likes of the TV show Walking with Dinosaurs (ironically Hone has written for the WwD website), which may have entertained its large audiences with its apparent 'facts', but made vast unsupported assumptions that Hone sweeps aside to show what we really know and don't know.

It's not possible to give this book more than three stars, because it suffers deeply from what you might call Rutherford's disease. The great physicist Ernest Rutherford infamously said 'All science is either physics or stamp collecting,' mocking the way some scientific disciplines are primarily about collecting and collating information, and the majority of The Tyrannosaur Chronicles is a step-by-step, working through what we know about different bits of the skeletons, what we can deduce about their diet from their skeletons, what we can deduce about the way they moved from their skeletons, what we deduce about their feathers from fossil remains and so forth. It will delight the young (or old) dinosaur enthusiast who wants to absorb every last piece of evidence, but it can be quite hard going for the general reader.

I found in working through the book that some chapters came across much stronger than others - a topic would suddenly become interesting and give some real insights, but then we'd be back to the stamp collecting. This may have been because some chapters take on a wider remit - so, for instance, one of the chapters I found most interesting was on the physiology of the tyrannosaurs, because rather than just describe (for instance) the skull and its implications, as one chapter does, the physiology chapter talks about the difference between being warm and cold blooded, showing it's not a simple binary option, and exploring whether dinosaurs, and tyrannosaurs in particular, could be fitted into a particular category and why.

For me, as a reader, by far the best part of the book was something the author probably thinks is totally trivial. I was aware that birds were some kind of relation to dinosaurs, but Hone makes it clear that birds are dinosaurs - and that simple revelation was startling. I'm sure others would get a lot more out of the detailed descriptions and illustrations (I wish there had been more illustrations) than I did. And Hone does a splendid job of showing both how far our understanding has moved on and how much more we need to discover. But it was a book that I found involved a fair amount of work to continue reading.


Hardback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…